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How to Make the Most of a Job Fair

Robin Reshwan
A job-seeker completes an application at a career fair held by civil rights organization National Urban League as part of its annual conference, in Philadelphia July 25, 2013. REUTERS/Mark Makela

October brings pumpkin spiced lattes, fall foliage and one of the best career launching events on campus - the job fair. If you're a college student or new graduate who is looking to launch your career, here are eight steps to maximize your job fair experience.

Create a personal commercial. A personal "commercial" establishes who you are, your relevant traits or experience and what you are looking to do next. For example, "My name is Robin Reshwan. I am a senior at UC Davis studying international relations. I just completed an internship with an educational policy think tank in Washington, D.C. I am looking for internship or career positions with a public policy or advocacy group for the spring or summer of 2014." That gives the recruiter a great introduction and a nice foundation for a conversation in four sentences and less than 20 seconds.

The concept of a personal commercial may sound hokey - but we see the benefits and pitfalls of branding (or lack of branding) around us daily. For a moment, pretend you are a company who sells phones. If you try to go to Verizon or AT&T to get them to carry your phones - the first thing they would want to know is what can your phones offer to their customers that Apple and Samsung aren't already offering. A business that cannot communicate its brand and the advantages of its product typically fails. Consumers recognize that it is the seller's job to clearly establish who they are and what they offer. Working a job fair is no different. In an event with hundreds, sometimes thousands of seemingly similar candidates, it is critical to establish who you are and how hiring you will benefit an employer. Without doing both, you may be just another face in the crowd.

Make a plan. Job fairs showcase many employers. Typically an attendee will only have the time and stamina to make an impact with four to six recruiters. Given those numbers, it is critical to determine who you want to see and plan accordingly. One way to tackle this is to review the company list. Put a star next to any employer that looks interesting to you and a question mark next to additional firms that warrant further investigation. You should target between 10 to 15 companies in total. Now, it is time to research.

Research. Look up companies on your college's job fair site, company website, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, blog and Pinterest pages, starting with the starred firms and then moving on to the question-marked companies. More companies are using their website as a static brochure and leveraging LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter for the latest information and updates. Depending on the company size, you may be able to review the recruiter's profile on LinkedIn as well. Make notes of any topics or news that interest you as well as any open position at the intern or entry level.

Rank. After reviewing its content, rank the company.

A - Must meet the representatives at the job fair. (five firms)

B - Would be nice to meet them, but they are not in my top five. (three more firms)

C - Wild card. Looks interesting/want to learn more if I have time. (two to four more firms)

You should now have a list of five to 12 companies in order of priority. This is your guide for the event.

Résumé. Make sure your résumé is flawless, easy to read and as customized as possible to your top employers. If you have a professional LinkedIn profile or can create a QR code, add that to your résumé too. You do not need to include references. Print at least 20 copies on high-quality paper in a clean folder along with a list of questions for specific employers. Add some blank paper to your folder for notes and make sure you have two pens that work.

Dress to impress. Dress as professionally as is possible given your class schedule. If you can come from home directly to the event in a clean, pressed suit - do it. If the best you can do is stop by the event between classes in clothes that worked for riding your bike - that is better than not attending at all. However, this is a visual event - so looking like you would fit in at the companies with which you are networking goes a long way in making a great first impression. Make sure your shoes are clean and polished. Your clothes should fit well. Remove chipped nail polish. Minimize jewelry and fragrances. Select a back pack or purse that can be closed all the way and that is easy to carry while shaking hands.

Attend and work your plan. Check the mirror before entering the event to make sure you've addressed any last minute issues with appearance and lose the coffee cup. Review your company list and look at the attendee map to determine the location of your A and B targets. Enter the event with a smile - even if you're on a mission to get to a specific company. Be friendly and professional to everyone. Use your best manners but don't be afraid to be politely persistent if a desired employer has a sea of students surrounding their booth. Once you have met your targeted employers, take a chance and meet any additional recruiters. You never know what you might learn. Ask for business cards from everyone.

Follow up. So few job seekers follow up or send a thank-you note after a job fair. One of the easiest ways to stand out is to send an email, handwritten note and/or LinkedIn invite thanking the recruiters for attending and reminding them of your goals. They came to this event to meet students and new graduates. You are not bothering them by thanking them and following up. Instead, you're distinguishing yourself as professional, polite and passionate about their company or industry.

Customization counts in a time when people are inundated with generic spam mail and "one size fits all" sales pitches. Employers respond best to job seekers who know their company and are prepared to talk about their industry and job openings. Preparation and follow up are keys to having more meaningful and memorable conversations at the career fair and establishing a relationship for the future. Good luck!

Robin Reshwan is the founder of Collegial Services, a consulting/staffing firm that connects college students, recent graduates and the organizations that hire them and a certified Women's Business Enterprise (WBE). She has interviewed, placed and hired thousands of people across a broad spectrum of companies and industries. Her career tips and advice are used by universities, national clubs/associations and businesses. A Certified Professional Résumé Writer, Robin has been honored as a Professional Business Woman of the Year by the American Business Women's Association. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa and as a Regents Scholar from University of California, Davis.

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